Through its involvement in the Yunnan Nationalities Cultures Project from 1990 to 1995, the Center-sponsored specialists observed that natural environment was an integral element of the artistic expression of the indigenous cultures. They also recognized that the challenges facing Yunnan in the areas of environmental conservation, development and management were of a global nature and required innovative solutions.

To this end, in 1999 the Center and the leadership of Yunnan Province co-hosted an international conference on culture and nature conservancy, in conjunction with socio-economic development. The objective of the conference was “to discern the condition of Yunnan’s ecology, culture, economy, and society and its potential for change.” The event brought more than 180 experts and observers from around the world who participated in briefings, exhibits, performances, demonstrations, site visits, presentation and discussion sessions.

The Center was host to a number of American institutions, including: The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, Partners for Livable Communities, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Asian Cultural Council. Funding for the event was provided by The Ford Foundation, with supplementary grants from other foundations, including The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Yunnan Initiative

The conference resulted in a comprehensive policy statement titled, “The Yunnan Initiative,” which is based on the following principles:

  • Conservation: Development should proceed without damage to culture, ecology, economy and society.
  • Inclusion: In keeping with Yunnan’s policy to develop the province into “a great province of nationalities cultures,” development and conservation strategies must be inclusive of all nationalities, and must build on local cultural heritage.
  • Education: Building public awareness of cultural and environmental values is critical to long-term success.
  • Tourism: Tourism could be a major engine for economic development, and must be developed to enhance Yunnan’s culture and ecology and provide direct social and economic benefits to indigenous people.
  • Collaboration: Local, regional, national and international collaboration on strategies to integrate conservation and development will bring a great deal to Yunnan and its partner communities from around the world.


The Yunnan Initiative set the stage for the implementation of demonstration projects which, guided by these principles, began the following year. In January 2000, the governor of Yunnan invited a Center-sponsored group of specialists to tour the Southern Silk Road for the purpose of identifying suitable sites. The two projects chosen were: Weishan City and the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve.